Sunday, February 9, marks the 50th anniversary of the evening – also on a Sunday – when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, collectively known as The Beatles, stepped onto the stage of CBS TV’s Ed Sullivan Show and, in less than an hour, altered the direction of American culture, just as they had done in England and Europe over the previous year. From conquering America on the crest of music’s “British Invasion,” the Fab Four went on to global stardom.
Well over 73 million viewers in the United States and Canada watched the Sullivan show that night. The lantern-jawed host had first laid eyes on the Beatles the previous Halloween, when his flight back to New York was delayed at London’s Heathrow airport by a mob of thousands that poured onto the tarmac to greet the band when they returned from a Swedish tour. But he’d been aware of the group for months prior to that incident.
In late February 1963 the second Beatles single “Please Please Me” had topped the British charts. “From Me To You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” followed, reaching Number One on the charts as well. By the fall of that year Beatlemania was as rampant in England and most of the Continent as adolescent adoration of Elvis Presley had been seven years before.
However, the first Beatles singles released in America produced little stir. “From Me To You” had reached the Top 30 in a handful of American cities in July, primarily getting airplay to compete with Del Shannon’s cover version. But it had gotten little play in larger markets.
But the Heathrow fracas that Ed Sullivan witnessed made the wire services in America, and this newspaper coverage stirred interest in the Beatles from the two most important national news shows on TV.
On Monday, November 18, 1963, NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report aired a four-minute segment from reporter Edwin Newman describing the musical phenomenon out of England, and featuring clips of the Fabs from a concert in Bournemouth, England two days before. President John F. Kennedy was a regular viewer of Huntley-Brinkley and, though no documentation exists, may have seen the Beatles that night.
Five days later, CBS, not to be outdone, aired a five-minute segment about the group’s overseas fame on CBS Morning News hosted by Mike Wallace. The footage used was also from the Bournemouth show. This was to be repeated later that day on CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. But the assassination of JFK meant that this rebroadcast was delayed until December 10, when Cronkite and his show’s producers decided to air it. As fate would have it, one day short of seventeen years later, “Uncle Walter” would introduce this segment once more – at the conclusion of a broadcast mostly concerned with the assassination of John Lennon.
The first time John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on an entertainment program on American TV was on Jack Paar’s talk/variety prime-time program on NBC. This aired on January 3, 1964. Paar introduced the same concert footage as on the news programs. He personally had little affection for the Beatles, or any kind of rock’n’roll. Indeed, at a 2001 press conference promoting the DVD release of clips from his shows, he said that he regretted any part he played in the Fabs’s rise to fame. The Beatles were featured on The Jack Paar Show partly to one-up his rival Ed Sullivan, who by this time had the Liverpudlian combo contracted for his show.
On December 26, 1963, Capitol Records released “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in America, and over New Year’s weekend the record’s airplay exploded from coast to coast. The reason why the Beatles caught on so quickly at that time, when they had failed to do so on these shores before, has often been discussed. The consensus among many is still that, in the wake of JFK’s tragic murder, America, especially its young people, needed something that could lift their spirits from a time of sorrow, an outlet to bring them back to a happier time, and the Beatles provided just that.
Paar’s show only fed Beatlemania to a fever pitch, so that by the end of January, tickets for the show on which the band was to appear were at a premium. Everyone who knew Sullivan or had appeared on his show had teenage daughters clamoring for tickets. Walter Cronkite was able to secure two for his children Kathy and Nancy. Leonard Bernstein struggled to get a ticket for his daughter Jamie and failed.
One young lady in New York was fortunate, however. Although Jack Paar was his rival, Sullivan, in a friendly gesture, gave his daughter Randy three tickets. Randy, who was to build an impressive career at the New York bar before her death in 2010, in turn gave two of these to a pair of sisters with whom she was friends, and whose father had made several memorable appearances on Jack Paar’s talk show – Tricia and Julie Nixon.
On February 9, the three friends entered the 700 seat theater at 1697 Broadway from which The Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast. Just before 8 pm Eastern time, as Bill Bixby and Ray Walston concluded their antics in My Favorite Martian, a photo of John, Paul, George and Ringo in their soon-to-be-celebrated collarless suits notified viewers that they would finally see the group performing on American soil. A few minutes later, Ed swiveled to face the band, shouted, “And now, here are – the Beatles!”
Whereupon Tricia and Julie Nixon, along with hundreds of their peers in the theater and tens of millions more across North America, joyfully greeted the lads as they commenced playing “All My Loving.” An unforgettable night for them and, as it proved, for the world.